(CN) – The Supreme Court held unanimously Monday that federal courts can exercise jurisdiction over discrimination claims that were never brought before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – which forbids employers from discriminating against employees on the base of race, color, religion, sex and national origin – stipulates that a complainant must first file a charge with the EEOC before going to court.
Monday’s decision stems from the case of Lois Davis, who says she was fired from her information-technology position with Fort Bend County, Texas, for attending a church event on a Sunday when she was scheduled to work. She also argued her supervisor retaliated against her for reporting sexual harassment by a co-worker, who resigned after an investigation.
Davis first filed a charge of harassment and retaliation with the EEOC in March 2011. While it was pending, she missed a work shift because of a previous commitment at church and was fired for that absence, according to court records.
She attempted to supplemental her EEOC charge by handwriting “religion” on one section of her questionnaire, but did not make any changes to the formal charge document.
Davis then received a notice of her right to sue from the Justice Department a few months later, and filed a federal lawsuit against Fort Bend County alleging religious discrimination and retaliation for reporting sexual harassment.
A federal judge granted Fort Bend County summary judgment, but the Fifth Circuit reversed as to the religious discrimination claim. On remand, the county argued for the first time that Davis did not meet Title VII’s filing requirements by failing to state a claim based on religion in her EEOC charge.
The Fifth Circuit again reversed and the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed Monday, agreeing that Title VII’s administrative-exhaustion requirement is not a jurisdictional prerequisite to a lawsuit, but is instead a waivable claim-processing rule.
Delivering the high court’s unanimous opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that “a rule may be mandatory without being jurisdictional, and Title VII’s charge-filing requirement fits that bill.”
The justices found that a complainant’s failure to comply with steps outlined in Title VII does not always bar courts from exercising jurisdiction over the relevant claims, and that Fort Bend County waited too long to argue that Davis did not properly file her charge of religious discrimination.
“A claim-processing rule may be ‘mandatory’ in the sense that a court must enforce the rule if a party ‘properly raise[s]’ it,” Ginsburg wrote in the 11-page opinion. “But an objection based on a mandatory claim-processing rule may be forfeited ‘if the party asserting the rule waits too long to raise the point.’”
She added, “Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is a processing rule, albeit a mandatory one, not a jurisdictional prescription delineating the adjudicatory authority of courts.”